E.M. Billington reflects on growing up in a small southern town, and eventually realizing that separating from where you grew up is not as simple as it might seem.
When asked about my tiny hometown of Golconda, located in that surreal pocket of southern Illinois where things begin to feel like the genuine American south, I like to compare it to the setting of a Flannery O’Connor short story. People generally think I am joking when I say this, but I am not. Ours is a town separated from reality, or at least separated from the rest of the outside world, as if it may in fact have been plucked from fiction.
Our residents love to gossip, some with malice and some without, while sipping sweet tea on their front porches on sweltering summer days. Filled with sunburnt residents in all shades of denim and makes of pickup trucks, we are about an hour away from the nearest city, surrounded by farmland, and home to far more churches than restaurants or grocery stores.
When I was younger, more liberal, and quite frankly more queer than my southern-twanged classmates at our county high school, I resented my hometown with every fiber of my being. With my love of fine arts, my desire for “culture,” and my deliberately non-southern accent I have practiced for so long that I have since lost sight of however I sounded in my childhood, I never felt I fit in during my youth. Surely when I started college up north, I’d been saying to myself from the age of thirteen, I would find some kindred spirits, people whom I could truly be myself around.
And find kindred spirits I did, as soon as I left high school for college in Chicago in January of 2017. (The following fall, we would move to a different campus in Naperville, IL, but that is another story.) Not even bothering to graduate or officially unenroll from high school before I began my college experience, I liked the idea of leaving Golconda in my dust to find those kindred spirits. Kindred spirits who devoured books as heartily as I did, who found my introversion intriguing rather than “serial killer-ish,” as my high school peers liked to call it. Kindred spirits from whom I did not feel the need to hide my sexuality, my love of writing, or much at all. Key word: much. After all, my deliberately non-southern accent is at its most deliberately non-southern the farther north I go and the more settled into an academic environment I become.
Though I spend most of the year in Naperville now, I still pass the time on my summer, spring, and winter breaks back in the American pseudo-south, as many historians like to call it. A strange phenomenon is that the less time I spend in Golconda, the more exciting the gossip I once preferred to ignore when I was younger becomes: who divorced who, whose dog snuck out and bit someone walking by on the street, who is currently on the run from the law. Still more exciting, some might say, are our natural disasters. The river floods, tornadoes throw trees onto houses, and in August of 2017, less than a month before I would leave for my second term of school, those of us at home found ourselves in the path for the first total solar eclipse in decades.
Word got out about that pretty quickly, even to those outside of our small town. Just like that, outsiders became aware of our existence and seemed, all of a sudden, to care about us. Or at least, they suddenly cared about what we had to offer them, the sights they could come to see.
Perhaps the place where the influx of new visitors was most apparent in the days before the eclipse was our local diner, the Dari Barr, which does not serve alcohol, but is, in fact, spelled the way I have written it. If I were to call any place in town the true hotbed for local gossip, it would be the Dari Barr. It is there that the old folks love to gather and talk while they eat biscuits and gravy in the morning or any number of deep-fried delicacies in the afternoon. Admittedly, even in my youthful bitterness, I have always had a fondness for that little place. It still looks about the same now as it did when it was built in 1947, with its one-room dining area, antique milkshake machine, and hot kitchen in the back with a little window you can peer through to see the head of whoever is cooking your food.
Because the Dari Barr is a place so uniquely ours, it is easy to notice when “out-of-towners,” as we call them, show up there. This does not happen often. Usually it is just people visiting local relatives, or maybe the occasional traveler passing through on their way to somewhere else, but so rarely do we get such an influx of visitors that it causes a true disruption, outright bafflement rather than mere curiosity.
That very outright bafflement is what brings us to the subject of the eclipse, for in the days before that celestial event, the Dari Barr was filled, bustling with customers who had northern accents that sounded much more real than my adapted mimicry of one. There were even some customers who had foreign accents, British and Indian and everything in between. The waitress working that day was completely frazzled. Sweat ran through her auburn hair and beaded down her forehead. If the local lunch rush on a normal day was hectic, the influx of customers brought about by the thousands of tourists who came to see us that August must have been hell.
I happened to stop by the Dari Barr with my mother the day before the eclipse to pick up some dinner to eat at home before she had to go to work. It was one of those sweltering summer evenings where you can practically see heat waves radiating off every surface, from tarry roads to the sides of crumbling brick buildings. The mass of bodies in the little diner made it all the warmer as my mother and I waited for our food.
It was strange, how repulsed I was by the crowd. In the time I had spent at college, I had grown accustomed to a teeming sea of people from all walks of life and every corner of our round world. In Chicagoland, this was a blending that seemed natural. Of course thousands of different people would go there, for the culture and for the educational and professional opportunities. I was one of those people, after all. But when I was home in the summer, blended in with the old people and their sweet tea-scented breath, it felt wrong somehow to see “others.” What is a place like Golconda, usually so isolated from the rest of the outside world, when the outside world chooses to invade it?
There was a man there that day who had an English accent, and a thick one at that. He was asking the waitress whether or not he could bring in the drinks he had in his car, which he had brought for his friends who were supposed to be coming to meet him soon. She was shaking her head, saying it was not that kind of bar—it had two r’s, after all—and they were set to close in about twenty minutes anyway. He probably had the wrong place, and was instead looking for one of the actual bars down the street. Needless to say, he left in a bit of a huff.
Those out-of-towners hardly knew what they were doing in our strange little place, and rather than siding with those who were more northern, more “cultured” than the locals, I found myself sympathizing with the waitress. Ours is a town nobody can truly understand unless they have grown up there, or at least spent a significant amount of time there, and out-of-towners who try to understand it are inevitably exhausting. As I went home that evening to sip my Sprite and eat my grilled cheese and tomato with cajun fries, I had a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. For what was perhaps the first time, I realized I may not be as hungry for the outside world as I had always imagined myself to be.
I could write of the eclipse itself, of the gradual darkening above us that afternoon, of how everything grew quiet as the sun disappeared into the sky where it had always been for those of us beneath the heavens’ blue canopy. It was quiet, at least, except for the crickets who began to sing because they thought an early night had fallen. I could write of the moments of darkness, lit only by the smallest of white rings, moments that felt as if they stretched on for hours while we watched and waited for the sun to return to us. I could write of how, when the sun finally did make its return, looking wrong somehow after it had been away for what seemed like so long, our cats began to meow for their breakfast, sure that the sun had simply risen again after what had been a very short night.
After the eclipse was over, the tourists who had come to us in droves left quickly. To them, Golconda seemed no longer interesting. Rather, it was a place where something interesting had happened once, no longer worth seeing and hardly worth even talking about with anything other than nostalgia for a sunless sky. The Dari Barr quickly went back to its normal quietude, I am sure, or at least it was back to normal when I next visited it. Main Street again became as slow as ever. Again, Golconda became like a ghost town in which its residents, I among them, were the abandoned spirits. This may have been the first time in my life when I truly felt like a product of my hometown, something southern and therefore easily cast aside or looked upon with disdain. (At least now, when I tell people I am from southern Illinois, they will sometimes say, “I was there for the eclipse,” rather than, “Oh, it must have been horrible to grow up down there.”)
I may not have as much of an accent as I once did, though now the older I get the more I hope to get it back someday. Still, the farther north I go, the more aware I am that I really do miss the small town southern life I can never fully seem to leave behind. I miss the front porches, the sweet tea, and if I do not miss my former peers I certainly miss the old people, old people who may not always understand the world as it truly is but whose hearts are sometimes in the right place. Who does understand the world as it truly is anyway, when the sun can go away in an instant and come back the next, when little diners can suddenly fill with out-of-towners who will only vacate them again once the show is over?
photo: pixabay.com, cc0 https://pixabay.com/en/sun-moon-eclipse-space-planet-332141/